Musée d'Orsay: Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910

Splendour and Misery. Pictures of Prostitution, 1850-1910

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Images of Prostitution

Henri de Toulouse-LautrecPortrait of Monsieur Delaporte in the Jardin de Paris© Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen
Prostitution in the 19th century adopted many guises: pierreusesworking illegally on wasteland in the dead of night, filles "en carte" (registered prostitutes) and filles "insoumises" (unregistered girls) soliciting in public places, verseuses (waitresses) employed in brasseries à femmes, brothel girls, and courtesans playing host to their admirers in luxurious townhouses.

Its ever-changing nature, which defied easy definition, was an enduring obsession among novelists, poets, playwrights, composers, painters, and sculptors. Most artists in the 19th century and first half of the 20th century addressed the splendor and misery of prostitution, which also became a favourite theme in the emerging art forms of photography and later the cinema.

It was in Paris in particular, between the Second Empire and the Belle Epoque, that prostitution became a popular subject for works of art associated with movements as diverse as academic painting, Naturalism, Impressionism, Fauvism, and Expressionism. The city was undergoing a radical transformation. A New Babylon for some, the ‘City of Light’ for others, it offered artists any number of new venues (high society salons, opera boxes, licensed brothels, cafés, and boulevards) in which to observe the highly choreographed rituals of sex for sale. These often contrasting depictions offer a blend of acute observation and imagination, indiscretion and objectivity, clinical detail and unbridled fantasy. However distinctive they may be, all these perspectives on the world of prostitution were the exclusive preserve of male artists. What emerges from the depiction of pleasure and pain, meteoric social ascents and wretched lives is the burden of being a woman in modern society.

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